Questions about the homeless and data problems

In this blog post, I write about an interesting question I would want to answer, and the reason why it probably won't get answered: The lack of available data.

One main thing economists do is answer difficult questions by using data. You could ask any kind of question and then try and find the appropriate data to answer it. One big problem occurs when there is simply no data available or the data that is available is inadequate. This can bring about big problems, because if everyone just studies the issues for which data are available huge areas of research can go completely untouched. This might be because data is difficult to acquire. For example, it's easier to find data for official government statistics on education that it is on people's attitudes towards important issues. In the latter case, you'd have to run a survey and this also bears the problem that the answers are self-reported and people might not always respond truthfully (whether it's conscious or unconscious). In a previous post, I wrote about the Gender Data gap and the fact that there is not enough data available on the lives and specific circumstances of women (especially in lower-income countries and areas). Similar problems are found elsewhere, in the post from last week Jocelyn writes about the book "Invisible Women" in which Caroline Criado Perez writes about how this world is designed for men and that one reason for this is that people don't make the effort to gather data on women.

The reason I'm writing about this is that I had a question for which there probably is no data available. I was wondering whether giving to the homeless is changing in the U.K. as the country transitions from predominately using cash to using cards. Usually, if things change drastically you see people adapting. If you walk around major cities in the U.K. today, most street musicians and artists have a small contactless device through which people can donate. Similarly, in museums, you can donate a specified amount using your contactless card instead of leaving some change. Clearly, the homeless could not adapt in this manner. You might even argue that homeless people with a contactless device would receive even less because people perceive them as less deserving. This question fits in the larger area of research on the homeless. While there is some data on how many homeless people there are or potential policies, there is less research on attitudes towards the homeless and their lives. A paper by Morgan, Goddard, and Givens from 2016 examines what determines people's willingness to help the homeless in direct face-to-face interactions such as willingness to give or volunteering in a homeless shelter. They find a strong link between the general level of empathy that a person feels and their willingness to give, but they also consider factors such as religion, gender, and race. Apart from attitudes towards the homeless, it might be also interesting to see what impacts their lives the most. Whether its services run by volunteers such as shelters or soup kitchens or direct giving from people on the streets. If receiving money from people on the streets is a major source for their food and clothing, a reduction in how much cash people carry with them could have drastic effects on the homeless. On the other hand, it might be that there is no effect at all because the people who give to the homeless will find a way to give with or without a card-based system. Or maybe, contactless won't have an impact on how much cash people carry in the first place. I think these are interesting questions to answer but clearly, there is not a lot of data available on the homeless. One could ask homeless people directly and conduct surveys but it would take a while until we'd have a sufficiently large data set. Furthermore, maybe homeless people don't know how much exactly they were given directly before the country moved to contactless. In this case, you could compare a country like the U.K. with a different more cash-focussed country such as Germany. But it might be that people in one country are just naturally more/less likely to give and that it actually has nothing to do with how much cash people carry with them.

I do not want to suggest that it lies in the public's responsibility to support the homeless, this is a huge policy failure, and governments should find ways to protect all its citizens and improve the lives of the homeless. Finland for example "solved" its situation with homelessness and while this solution might not work everywhere this suggests that through smart thinking and commitment it's not impossible to help the homeless.

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